Getting their acts together

The Baltimore Sun

Thirteen appears to be anything but an unlucky number for Common Ground on the Hill.

As the program's annual two-week event that celebrates the traditional arts descends upon the McDaniel College campus for a 13th season, it's arriving with a fresh batch of opportunities to explore world cultures.

"They do keep getting better," said Walt Michael, executive director and founder of Common Ground. "This year's going to be the best year ever."

Courses scheduled for the two separate "Traditions Weeks" range from photography, guitar and dance classes to lessons in creating a clay whistle or a shekere, a West African instrument.

Among the new selections: Quebecois music and Scottish fiddling, workshops in Andean music and Hawaiian chant, sacred music taught by Antion - formerly Vic Briggs, a guitarist with the 1960s band Eric Burdon and the Animals.

Wedged between the two sessions is the 10th annual Roots Music and Arts Festival, which this year will include renowned Appalachian musician Jean Ritchie, whom Michael described as "the mother of American folk music," and legendary guitarist Doc Watson, "the pre-eminent artist, musician, singer to come out of the Southern Mountains."

"Getting them together at the same place, at the same time, is historic," said Michael, who is also McDaniel's artist-in-residence. The festival is at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Through its explorations of traditions in music, art, dance and other forms of expression, Common Ground serves to foster cross-cultural dialogue, Michael said. It also encourages people to act - instead of simply absorb, as is common in today's society.

"As modern people, we have sort of stopped doing things, and we're just sort of receivers now," Michael said. "People have been making music and doing art and interacting. ... Common Ground is an attempt to reaffirm that as part of the average human experience."

Between 300 to 400 people had already signed up for courses last week, said Michael, who is known for his role in the revival of the hammered dulcimer. People can register for the first week as late as 8 a.m. tomorrow, Michael said. Those interested in enrolling in the second week can do so until those classes begin.

It's not unusual for the summer event's graduates to return for an encore, Michael said, and this year, some regulars are even debuting as teachers.

Jonathan Gilmore, 23, has participated since age 14.

"It really kind of opens the door to so many different things," Gilmore said, going on to describe his introductions to instruments such as the dulcimer and ukulele.

This year, Gilmore is following in the footsteps of his mother, who taught a class on women and the blues at Common Ground. He's teaching a new urban folk workshop, taking a look at contemporary black music such as hip-hop and soul, as well as the underground open-mike culture.

"I'm trying to take that whole movement to Common Ground," Gilmore said.

Along with its lessons in artistic traditions, Michael said, Common Ground on the Hill is "just a great place to hang out and have fun."

"You don't have to be an artist ... to be here," he said. "You can enter into those activities in a very friendly atmosphere."

Gilmore knows that from his experience - and the beginning guitar class he said he's taken four times.

"There is so much freedom there to mess up, and you don't feel like it's going to ... be an issue," Gilmore said. "You learn so much."

Those lessons shouldn't end after two weeks, Michael said. "This is about learning skills that you can take with you the rest of your life."

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